For Mathangi Arulpragasam (or as the world so succinctly knows her, M.I.A.), the message has always been the medium. When she speaks, she imbues each word with powa. As dominant modern design drains color in favor of grayscale, her work remains as defiantly saturated as ever — as hyperconscious of civilization’s many maladies as your ability to throw ass to them. It’s never been about a singular cause so much as it’s about living brazenly in the face of a world that rewards blissful ignorance.
Having spent the bulk of the COVID era stationed out in Los Angeles in order to be with her now-teenage son, Ikhyd, the 47-year-old artist has spent the past few years grappling with what it means to compromise. “I’d much rather be in a jungle, but I’m in the concrete jungle,” she says. Out of this place, she probed deeper into a new realm of spirituality that birthed the songs comprising her first album in over half a decade.
M.I.A. once considered naming the album after Ikhyd, but eventually landed on MATA, which translates to mother in Sanskrit. It could also mean meta or even martyr; now a born-again Christian, she believes Jesus Christ as the “ultimate” example of the term. Zoom out even further and MATA could be matter, the substance all physical objects are composed of. Whereas her last album, AIM, took a pointed stance on the convergence of territorialism, xenophobia and surveillance in western immigration policy, MATA feels like an audible Rorschach test.
“I'm a very reactionary artist,” she admits. “To make an album that was completely focused on essence, rather than the noise of the world, was the key component. How to make something timelessly your essence, without the fabricated noise of the planet infiltrating it. You can live through a pandemic and make an album that stays pure without it being tainted by greasy grubby greedy goblin-like scientists.”
This aforementioned anti-establishment suspicion permeates her highly scrutinized Twitter feed, whereas of lately it can be nearly impossible to decipher album promo from conspiracy theory: “[MATA] will save you and your grandparents. It’ll enter every cell and help you fight ignorance. If you don’t listen to MATA you will be fired and not allowed to go to school,” she writes. “All of this is true coz MATA rhymes with DATA.”
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The day prior, in the wake of Alex Jones’ $965 million Sandy Hook verdict, she had asked her followers whether celebrities advocating for vaccinations should “pay for lying,” a move that predictably incensed the masses. When questioned by The Guardian, she was quick to cite the discrepancies in reports on the Tamil genocide as part of her reasoning. Though nearly always somehow rooted in defense of the voiceless, these instances of inflammatory rhetoric have often veered from galvanizing to distracting.
MATA itself is less driven by the high-stake provocations, but rather the insatiable urge to rise above (or at least cut through) the stagnance of monoculture. “I tried to make you see I was tellin’ the truth, I was tryna be everything you want me to be,” she reflects on its third single. “I can’t please everyone, I’ma let it beep.” After two decades of being pop’s loudest soothsayer, maybe this is the point at which some of her worst fears finally come to fruition. It sounds as though there’s something unburdening in that.
“The whole [album] is not a struggle with the world, but a struggle with yourself,” she says, of MATA’s subject matter. “Changing and adapting and remembering who you are, but okay to let things go and also becoming part of a larger community so you're not acting as an individual.” To put it in plainer terms, “It’s not necessarily all about you.”
As Grimes readies the release of her long-awaited sixth LP from her new home base of Austin, Texas, the striking parallels between her and M.I.A. have perhaps never been so abundant. The longtime internet friends have never met in person, but the mutual admiration is palpable: “Grimes has carved out a place in the music industry that is super unique, and she’s sustained it and is strong enough to hold it by herself,” M.I.A. says. “You have to respect that. I know she must have gone through crazy shit to keep that level of identity that she has.”
Speaking over the phone, the pop iconoclasts connected for a conversation that almost immediately eschewed the formality of an album interview, diverging instead into an ambitious exchange on their legacies beyond music and into the realms of spirituality, motherhood, cryptocurrency, public education and the actionable steps they want to take in order to leave behind a better world for their children.
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M.I.A.: I'm at a dentist in Mexico.
M.I.A.: I'm trying out this new thing that people do in America.
Grimes: Is it the vampire teeth?
M.I.A.: No, is that a thing here?
Grimes: Yeah, my friends who live in Brazil got vampire [teeth].
M.I.A.: I really fancied coming here and then thought, “While I'm here I'm going to be a good old American and get all my medical stuff sorted out.” I felt a bit bored and fancied the challenge. So now I can talk about these issues: I went to the dentist and it cost me like $50, and then if I go to one in Beverly Hills, it's a lot more expensive.
Grimes: Yeah, it's crazy.
M.I.A.: It was interesting to see the quality, and it helps me keep on top of what is going on economically and [with the] standard of living, so I can speak from experience.
Grimes: I was literally just doing tons of research on the reserve currency and the US dollar is the reserve currency. I was noticing with the warmongering happening right now, the US dollar is becoming a lot more valuable because in times of war people start buying US dollars because it's essentially the reserve currency and how this inherently fucks every other country. Our stupid warmongering is just making our dollar inflated.
M.I.A.: I can't believe the dollar is the same as the pound right now, it's crazy. Or it's the same as the Euro. But even the dollar being the reserve currency is fought and won. It wasn't the natural choice.
Grimes: It creates a lot of chaos and I feel like it really pits the East versus the West too. Everybody coming together and settling on an abstract currency as the reserve currency would be a better call. I feel like it would inherently deescalate a lot of things.
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M.I.A.: It used to be gold, didn't it? And that's what Colonel Gaddafi was trying to do, but then the last big war for NATO was that and they put the dollar in as the main currency. I never knew this about gold, but apparently what we have is all that we have. It's not like you can create gold. We only have apparently three swimming pools-worth of gold on Earth and the US has most of it. Even if it went into gold at this point, it would still put the US in a certain position because they have most of the currency in gold. So you've got minerals as a currency, and then you have paper and cash as currency. Now we are looking at some sort of other type of ether with cryptocurrency. I think all three are important. Ideally, I'd like to see a way that all three can be a mode of currency in the future and that we don't have to go completely extreme towards one or the other.
I say this because, for example, I'm doing this interview in Mexico and I'm sure that the majority of the population here operates with cash. When you are below the poverty line, you tend to be people that turn up to markets and pay cash, and it's a grandmother that puts a dollar bill in a bra and goes off to the fish market. They don't have a cryptocurrency wallet and I don't know how someone like that will adapt to something so quickly when they already have this hand-to-mouth existence. So much of money is exchanged in those circumstances that you would really pull out stops on more than 50% of the global population by eradicating cash. If we switch them to a digital existence and give them phones and a crypto wallet to go and buy a pound of potatoes at the market, then we have to think about the repercussions of the environmental aspect of having such a digital future.
This is the bit where I get confused because I'm like, “So if we turn that 60% of people that are earning a dollar a day onto phones and existing with cryptocurrency, then where do we store all that information?” Every one of those wallets has to be stored on a thing under the sea somewhere or wherever we're going to stick it in a volcano. All of the infrastructure and computing power has to exist to maintain this. So to me, this is why all three are important.
Grimes: I agree and disagree. Everyone is so risk averse that we're not trying to do big crazy moves, for example, providing everyone on earth with a phone. No one ever suggests doing anything like that. Sometimes I wonder if you sat in a room for 20 minutes and thought of how to fix Earth, you could do something like that. There's a lot of issues with digital life and there's a lot of stuff we need to sort out from an addiction perspective, addiction to phones and some of the mental health outcomes that are negative because of that and reduce kids playing outside.
But on the other hand, when I look at the educational disparities globally and then you see what kids can do when they have access to the internet and what they can learn. I've been doing a lot of research into education and there's so many online resources for education. I'm like, we could give everyone on Earth equal access to the best education available if we could get everyone a phone and access to these tools and think about how much that would change people's ability to control their existence and make sure it's as good as it can be. Or empower women to get in safer situations.
So I guess my counter to that would be, we should give everyone a fucking phone or computer. We should find a way to fund that. Because if you look at the amount of money that's been acquired by effective altruism or that is acquired every year by charitable organizations, that is a fundable thing. But there's probably so many issues that I'm not foreseeing because I just thought about that in this moment.
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M.I.A.: One of the issues would be, who makes the phone? How we make the phone, how we store the data that we're constantly creating on the phone, as well. This is very optimistic of you. And also this might be way too complex for PAPER Magazine, because we're trying to solve the world, but let's try to do this on PAPER. So we're discussing the value of paper versus digital currency and phones. When I started my career, I started with a pen and paper. I wrote my lyrics in a notepad. Now I have the option of writing my lyrics in a phone and making my beats on a phone or computer. I have changed my tools, but my method is the same and my thoughts are the same and the way I want to hear something is the same.
It's an interesting conversation for me because I've been to places where I've given people exactly that, where you go: I'm going to give these 10 people exactly what I have to create. Here's a laptop, here's some programs, here's a camera, here's the phone. Then you leave them and say, “Right now they're going to be like me.” They'd be able to create whatever and express themselves or learn, like you said, download a whole university program and get a degree, which you can actually do, which is amazing.
But some people don't do that. To trace back the life of these laptops, some of them have ended up in swimming pools, some of them have been sold, some of them got pawned, some of them got stolen. So depending on who you give it to, some people don't value something like that. It's not that everybody gets the same tools, like you said it's also simultaneously developing people that also find the motivation or inspiration. The problem I find with culture sometimes is that we all want to do the same thing and sometimes that might not be the answer. You have to be careful with that.
Grimes: I super agree. I saw this essay on the internet about how the monoculture-ness of now is getting really toxic and I agree.
M.I.A.: I do too.
Grimes: They were showing all the logos of big film companies like Warner Brothers. In the ’30s and ‘40s, everyone had a different brand in a different style. There was more plurality of vision. As we enter into modernity, everyone's home is all Ikea. There's this sameness and suburbia and all the logos of all the big film companies are now super simple, minimalist designs. It's quite tragic and disables people because when there's more plurality, there's room for more different types of brains and thinking. Right now to succeed in the current environment, you have to be able to function under its regimented, accepted ideas and philosophies and art styles.
M.I.A.: This is why I try to stay as weird as possible. When I was making the Kala album, I read this article where they said India bought the handbook of how to make a Starbucks and that they're really excited about it and going to make Starbucks all over the place in India. In America, they’re making chai lattes, meanwhile India is going to adopt this whole Starbucks philosophy. They were saying there's a billion people in China who're going to want to do the same thing, so people are going to be drinking coffee all of a sudden. I was like, "Wow, that's kind of incredible." If you apply that to every single item that we say, "This is the thing you’ve got to have in order to be acceptable,” everybody globally wants it at the same time because now we live in a time where you hit a button and it goes out globally because everything is a global brand.
This is the problem and why there's a drain on resources. While you simultaneously have a population expanding and then the resources are depleting, our want is all the same. So this brings me to the spiritual aspect, right? The optimism and the want I have for everybody to be equal and everyone to have the same standard of living and a good life and dignity, I want that. But sometimes I feel that, given all of the tools to every single human on the planet, not everyone will yield the same outcome.
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So in a larger sense, giving everyone exactly the same tools doesn't necessarily create the same person, but we are told to be the same person and to want the same things and to look good and do this and achieve that. This is where you've got the problem we are living through now, where we've got the clash of this population versus production issue. Spiritually, the only way to really understand it is through the idea of Hinduism where you think, "Some people are born a certain way and some people are born another way, and that's all dependent on something larger than the environment and that the cycle could be longer than what we're seeing."
But at the same time, when we are talking about how the dollar is strong and why certain countries can't get out of poverty, this adds to the problems we've got and that has to be fixed first. I want to be at peace with it and be like, "Well, this is how the world is with this chaos." This is how Hindus explain the world. They're like, "The chaos is meant to be chaos and you are born in this chaos and then you work yourself through it." Some people do it in one lifetime, some people don't and they keep coming back to do it.
Christianity looks at it head-on and says, "No, there's just good and bad in this world, and that's why there's inequality and some people have crazy opportunities and some people don't." It's sort of written that you have to have more compassion in the world to achieve equality. On the other hand, loads of people's argument against Christianity is that they went as missionaries to all these countries and broke these countries and got them primed for colonization. So the work of Christianity went hand in hand with colonization. This is spiritually, to me, a very interesting situation and I don't see how we solve it.
Grimes: I have thoughts of how we solve it, but they could be really wrong. The thesis I've been coming to over time is that the things we need to do to overcome our problems are technological, but that includes both literal technology and social technology, which is something we disregard too often in our culture. When I say social technology, religion is a social technology. It's a thing people used to fill in for mental health before we had concepts of mental health. I still think religion functions better than the mental health system most of the time. Part of our issue is that we haven't been updating our religions or making new religions that are adequate and make sense with the time. Most religions feel somewhat mythological or fantastical in the current cultural landscape, even if they contain really good teaching.
To speak about resources and technology, we have solutions to all these problems, we are just not implementing them. We have carbon capture, we have remineralization of soil and, in fact, we can do those things at the same time. If everybody started composting and we started enriching soil and putting our waste into compost and taking more care, there's ways to take care of our earth that solve our problems that can allow for radical abundance. While I don't think we can have equality of outcome between people, I do think something that is achievable is equality of opportunity.
M.I.A.: I totally understand what you're saying and I agree that we have everything. We have the ideas we need and the resources we need, we have the money we need and the people we need. We're suffering from overpopulation, so we have enough manpower to change whatever we want, or womenpower. Having been in LA for the last six months, I don't know if it's specific to LA, but it feels like everything's been maxed out. The ideas have been maxed out, the lifestyle's been maxed out. Everything costs so much money to exist in this lifestyle, which is very curated and carefully made, but at the same time it cannot be molded to become more environmentally conscious. Everything has been monetized and exhausted in the way that it's constructed. If you also go to New York, how do you change that? Every rooftop in New York City should be a vegetable garden right now.
Grimes: Yeah, to counter that: for example, there's all kinds of power startups being developed. What we need to do is rely less on the government and allow individual companies to start creating the tools we need to power our lives.
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M.I.A.: I 100% agree with you. I'm a full supporter of that and support any independent thinkers and companies who've got the motivation to see a vision and follow it through. But the problem is, say a company like Google, how do you then maintain their value system or ethics so that they don't become politicized and become the government? That's the problem we are living through now. Tech giants have become the shapers of this situation that we are seeing.
This is the type of thing I've been censored for. Say 15 years ago or 12 years ago or 10 years ago, I was talking about, "Look, one company should not become the government. Not all of us need to be transformed into product-pushing humans or consumers." One of the positives of the COVID era is that we are learning to live within our means or be conscious of what we really need and how things are made and produced and distributed. Because of the problems arising, everyone's having moments to think about these points.
But as an artist, I was really punished by the media. Even supporting something like WikiLeaks, which did more than talk about politics, it talked about the role of corporations and how politics had no idea how powerful corporations were becoming and politics were signing off on all this lobbying, which would put humans in a fucked-up position 10 years from now and then, bingo, we're there now where corporations are bigger than governments and governments have to do what they get told to do.
Grimes: I'm worried COVID destroyed everyone's faith in institutions, which there wasn't much reason to have faith in. Our institutions had become so corrupted, both on the corporate side and on the government side, that it's not like having faith in them was a great thing. But what I'm worried about is that the loss of faith in the ability, or at least the aspiration for them to be great, is making them all worse. I was always shocked at the degree to which you got punished for that shit. I always thought you were really smart and I hope it's sort of validating, but tragic, to see a lot of that stuff come true.
And to speak on lobbying, I feel like it's so negative both ways because it benefits the rich companies. It benefits the things that are already institutions of power because it's so expensive. Let's say you're making a nuclear power startup and you don't have the funds or you don't want to exist in that system, then you are inherently at a disadvantage and you inherently cannot work to undermine the system because you basically have to support a super corrupt system if you want to function in a way that can undermine it. Lobbying keeps our worst people in power.
M.I.A.: Somebody was saying, “If you get rid of lobbyists, then the world would change.”
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Grimes: That is one of the biggest problems.
M.I.A.: Instinctively, that feels like the right thing. But get rid of faith in institutions and politicians. Get rid of lobbying, and then free education and give access to whoever wants it. Maybe there's another way of doing it and you create new institutions, but I don't want to call them institutions, where it's like if you go to a village in Cambodia, it's not that you have to buy every single kid a phone. You can maybe put technology in one collective place, so you limit everybody's exposure. Because like we said before, phones do other things that we didn't know was going to cause a lot of societal issues.
Grimes: Yeah, it is a drug. Screens are a drug and that's a really strong idea. Having imposed limits is super smart.
M.I.A.: When I was in Indonesia, that was one of the problems. In cultures where talent and knowledge are passed down generation to generation through other means and trade is taught from generation to generation, they found that as soon as phones were introduced, the new generation who had the phones stopped learning trade and information from their grandparents. They stopped transferring all this ancient stuff through the community, so it created a massive disconnect between the older generation and new generation. For the first time you've got a generation of kids who don't know how to chisel a fricking waterfall out of a piece of rock with ancient knowledge.
That was very sad to learn and we created that because of the phone. And actually, it's quite a good meditation for your mental health to create art and make sculptures that are very precise and specific, and also meditating on your idea of a God. I know that having idols is not a good thing, but in their culture that's part of their meditation to be able to carve it.
Grimes: I feel like we could come to a better religious consensus where we have a religion that isn't so othering or brutal. I keep thinking that one of the reasons people gravitate so much towards astrology is because it provides a spiritual, religious experience without judgment.
M.I.A.: With religion and spirituality, there's layers of it and you have to ignore where something comes from. Christianity, if you bypass the names of these religions and the figure and the visuals and the fantastical nature, and if you strip it back to the basic core, Christianity talks about certain values and virtues. So does Hinduism and Buddhism, but each one is described in a certain way. Hinduism paints a picture to describe a concept of time and energy or destruction. Whenever you are feeling like you are in that zone, the picture reminds you of where you're at.
So loads of people take something so literal, but it's not and that's what Christianity is. If you have a concept of forgiveness or compassion or being saved in your darkest time, then a picture of Jesus is there or a cross, and you're like, "Okay.” It's not like that means I believe all of the stuff when it was written 2000 years ago. [Christianity] reminds you that it's okay to let things go, be compassionate, forgive and think about something bigger than what your actual situation is at this moment.
Buddhism is also like that. It talks about suffering and being able to let go of materialistic things and focusing on achieving this meditative, peaceful state. I don't think Buddha is a god.
Grimes: It's a philosophy. I'm doing an experiment right now where I'm being a pagan polytheist because I have this theory that before the rise of monotheism, society was a lot better. If your religion has 100 gods and practices ancestor worship, why would you judge other religions as much? I'm not saying that the old world or antiquity was some kind of paradise, but it does feel that we have this otheringness and tribalism in our culture. Maybe that was always there, but I'm curious, does Hinduism feel more accepting in general of the other?
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M.I.A.: Yeah, when I did the Matangi album, that's where I was at. At the time people were like, "Wow, you made the weirdest, craziest album. You gave your middle finger to the Super Bowl and then you fucked off. And then you came back making ‘Bad Girls’ and talking about Matangi, a goddess, which is one of 10 goddesses called the Mahavidyas, which is a very specific but complex thing to get your head around for normal society that was listening to your music on the dance floor.”
Then came Hillary Clinton running for office and it all became about female empowerment. Suddenly all the women were taking to the streets and there were protests everywhere, and Madonna was the one championing that. But that level of acceptance for me as a woman wasn't given. I was going through all the lawsuits, I was in a custody battle. I was going through all kinds of crazy shit as a woman and I was doing it in a country that I wasn't very familiar with on my own. At the same time, I felt attacked by governmental forces because I'd given support to WikiLeaks, and then I had all the press against me, the elites against me. And then, obviously, I was with Roc Nation and we fell out.
The only reason Hinduism made sense is that it came up with a concept that a woman can be a musician. Matangi was a musician and could stick up for justice or freedom of speech or truth. And [there are] the untouchables, which are underprivileged people and outcasts of society. You don't always have to represent this elite, polished aesthetic to be an entertainer or a musician, which is something that I know I can afford. I could clean myself up and present this Instagram image, but I purposefully don't bother doing it because it's okay to live within certain means and empower people to feel good in their skin. We don't all need to feel the same pressure to live by standards of people who are very, very wealthy and have millions of dollars to look good.
Anyway, Hinduism gave me that acceptance where everything chaotic about you is fine because every chaotic aspect of a human being is all there, from their present actions, their past actions, their thoughts, their relationship with all the things around them. So it's ultimately the most freeing thing: the complete acceptance and understanding that even your own family, they're all individual souls, and there's no attachment to anything and you fulfill the [life] purpose. Within creation, and all the beautiful things God represents, there's also chaos and destruction and decomposing, which then feeds again back into creation. So in that sense, everything is okay.
Grimes: I really love that. I feel like that concept has been lost, especially in the West because we went from having ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, these very plural cultures, and they lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now we have the rise of monotheism and even the atheist post-monotheist culture is so singular in what it will accept, that it's inherently self-defeating. I also think people really struggle to come to peace with death and loss because we've done a lot to try to erase it from popular culture.
M.I.A.: In the West definitely. That's why it really showed that in COVID times the most people who struggled with it and the concept of this was the West because they have lost some sort of spiritual way to digest that information.
Grimes: Yes, definitely. At the same time though, if we really wanted to, we could overcome the concept of Dark Ages. There's this resigned feeling everyone is having right now that we have to inherently plummet into the fall of Rome. We have to have a mass societal collapse and that's the only way forward. Everyone's already grieving this before it's happened, instead of trying to find ways to stop it from happening. I don't think the issue is education and elite education. The issue is we don't teach people to be good anymore. That's not valued.
M.I.A.: Exactly. The educational institution is important because when it's purely science-driven or purely tech-driven, purely money-driven, they're only turning out human beings that are interested in all of these. We live in a society where you have to have success blinders on and go full fucking throttle that, unfortunately, people are not critical thinkers. And now they've got the fear of speaking out because you get shadow banned and censored, so it's getting worse. Everyone wants to be perfect, so it’s going to be difficult to get everyone to think in a 360, mindful way. Think of the trees and the Earth and the planet, and think of your own cells and the stars.
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Grimes: The problem is everyone's stuck in fight or flight because we need universal healthcare and we need housing. There must be a social safety net because you can't enlighten everybody when people can't think about anything besides survival.
M.I.A.: Yeah, but you take educational institutions and they've been told to only study a certain thing. If you look at the list of whom [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] MIT puts forward as the best 30 people for the year, it always blows my mind. Wow, 28 out of 30 people they've promoted as our fucking future legends are all thinking about space or robotics. And only two out of 30 are looking at cleaning water or bringing education to everybody on the planet.
Grimes: In MIT's defense, that's what MIT is for. But the issue is more that we're not allowing for other institutions. I really am against this, "Let's tear down that aspect of society." That is the wrong approach.
M.I.A.: No, I'm not saying tear it down. If you're going to promote 30 human beings who are going to be ahead of the curve on putting together the freshest ideas for the future, I want those 30 human beings... especially when you're saying, "Under 30," so they're pretty young and in the modern world in the West, I'm sure they're not very learned and experienced. Especially now it's going to be tougher, like when I look at how many American children have passports and travel everywhere, and really take in that knowledge because that's also difficult. They're working so hard to streamline themselves into Ivy League colleges that they don't travel and observe loads of shit going on.
Also, they're getting information from a bubble, which is a propaganda: American tech platforms, so they have very limited ability to see the world in a wide scope outside of being Americans incentivized to monetize or uphold some political agenda. To choose 30 people at MIT and say, "These people are going to save the world," I want a balanced list. I want five people thinking about water, five people thinking about energy, five people thinking about food, five people thinking about health and five people thinking about space. The education institution needs to become a balanced place because every parent now, I can guarantee, wants their kid to get into tech or science or space because that's the time we're living through.
Grimes: I do think there's an issue with decoupling tech from those things, though. That's the heart of the issue is that technology can solve most of these problems, but because the early days of Silicon Valley fucked up so bad, people think building technologies isn't what is going to solve these problems when in fact, technology is what’s going to solve these problems. We need to enable more nuance, so that we cannot create symbolic demons in our culture and decide that an entire sector of things is inherently evil when there is a lot of wisdom and potential.
We have the freaking solutions and we're not using them. LA is too corrupt to put in a desalination plant because politicians don't want to spend however many billions of dollars it would take to provide LA with clean water. They don't want to do it because they don't want to do anything controversial and it would take more years to build than their term. So everyone's disincentivized when there's all these super easy solutions and smart people all over the world coming up with them. We know what to do, we just aren't doing it.
M.I.A.: Maybe you’ve got to get some money off Elon [laughs].
Grimes: I'm probably going to put out one more album and then I'm going to do things that are more helpful to people.
M.I.A.: I can't wait for this album to come out and actually go and do that. There is a part of me that wants to keep going straight and drive through Mexico, through South America and really take in what's happening and what people need and do it instead of saying it. My thing is going to be affordable housing. I want to dedicate my life to that for the next five, 10 years.
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Grimes: Dude, I'm literally working on a housing bill in Austin, right now.
M.I.A.: Yeah, I'm going to do this. Matangi also stood for cleaning up pollution. Funny enough on Wikipedia it says she's a goddess of pollution, but it's kind of the pollution of sound. That's why she lives in the ghettos because she's able to notice pollution more and so she can help clean it. She's a goddess who's not floating in the clouds, but she lives in the trashiest places. So I was like, “I should go to India and get into the whole waste disposal thing because that would be a very useful thing to do instead of making music.” But we can make music for fun and actually get into proper things, and I think affordable housing is the thing. It's insane in California, how did that even happen?
Grimes: There’s this faux misplaced environmentalism that leads to this overregulation when that's not the actual environmental issue. We don't need more sparse living. In fact, denser living is more environmentally friendly. People use less cars, people walk more. People are doing what intuitively feels correct, but it's actually harming people, making the world more expensive and it is environmentally worse. Also, it's so hard to make rooftop gardens. People aren't educated in gardening. When you talk about generational knowledge, we've lost the knowledge of how to garden.
M.I.A.: This is what's really weird about being an artist that's still around. I lived for the first 10 years of my life with no shoes on, walking on dirt and picking fruit off a tree and eating off a leaf. Our bags at the local store were made of yesterday's newspaper, no plastic bags. For 10 years I saw how Tamil people lived, which is very environmentally friendly, and then you are still alive in a period where it has gone so far one way. I live the most minimal, stripped down lifestyle for an artist ever [in LA]. I still have one suitcase that I came with a year ago and I'm still wearing the same clothes out of this one suitcase, so I'm not overconsuming and overdoing stuff.
I chose [my album title] MATA because it’s about the concept of something needing to die and that's what this whole conversation is about. Jesus was the ultimate martyr and he died for all our sins. But when you say a syllable with your tongue, the transformation from your brain signal to uttering the word is called “Mata.” It fit at the moment for me because we are living in a time where there's so much. Even taking the USA, it's a period of struggle where there are fights between opinions and ideas and people being divisive and divided.
Also, I am a mother and I'm in America, and it was very difficult for me to come to the USA after the COVID period because I’d much rather be in a jungle, but I'm in the concrete jungle in LA. It was difficult, but I had to compromise for my son to spend time with his dad. This is the phase I'm going through, you do have to compromise as a mom. The whole [album] is not a struggle with the world, but a struggle with yourself — changing and adapting and remembering who you are, but okay to let things go and also becoming part of a larger community so you're not acting as an individual. It's not necessarily all about you.
Grimes: Motherhood really drives that point home in such a profound way. I think you're a bit older than me, but I don't really remember not living in a digital culture. I remember learning how to type on a computer as I was learning how to read. I feel like the digitalness really separates us because even though we think we're socializing on social media, you're not actually having an in person socialization. Your body isn't releasing oxytocin and nice hormones to make you calm, but we think we are.
You can shortcut almost every aspect of life right now, but you can't shortcut motherhood. There's this profound sense of compromise and community that arises from it. Even in the sense that you're compromising with the father, compromising with the kid, compromising your sleep for the kid's needs, compromising where you live. You really get the sense of purpose and you want to do those things, you know? Even though it's the worst thing for you, you also profoundly want to do it because you care so much about another life form that it's like, I don't want to say ego death because people dehumanize mothers so much and act like mothers have no personality. The way our culture talks about motherhood and views motherhood is so toxic.
Recently I'm gravitating socially to other women who have kids, which is so different from how I used to be because I feel like they grasp a sense of savagery about reality. There's a medievalism and a primalism to having kids that I feel everyone is losing, but there's also this caring about the world. All the moms I know profoundly care about society in a way. It forces you to be an optimist and a humanist.
M.I.A.: We can talk for ages.
Grimes: No one ever lets you talk about this shit.
M.I.A. All the kids that are into fashion are going to be really bored.
Grimes: We shouldn't underestimate people. We have bad content because everyone underestimates people, but when you see how popular Game of Thrones is, people can handle very complex things more than we think.
M.I.A.: That's what I find when I meet people, but when you read it through social media it's always put through the spaghetti machine. Well, have a nice day and it was great talking to you.
Grimes: Yeah, it was so great. I've been a fan forever and you are a huge influence on me, so thank you so much for asking me to do this. It means a lot.
M.I.A.: I've been a really huge fan too.
Editor’s note: At our core, PAPER stands for artistic expression and freedom of speech. Although we might not always agree with the perspective at hand, we believe the only way forward is through conversation, difficult or not. For M.I.A.’s third PAPER cover to date, we’re proud to platform her new album, MATA, as a powerful example of the artist making her voice heard. –Justin Moran, Editor-in-Chief
Photography: Adam Powell
Styling: Juje Hsiung
Makeup: David Velasquez
Hair: Preston Wada
Nails: Yvett G
Set design: Skye Whitley Guzman
Retouching: Matty So
Photography assistant: Rory Hamovit
Styling assistant: Jester Bulnes and Ashley Hood
Production assistant: Eliza Jouin